Discovering Connections between Poverty and Race and Criminal Justice

By Leah Travis

Ms. Travis is a junior sociology major anticipating opportunities in undergraduate and graduate school to expand on what she has learned in the classroom, community engagement in Jackson, Mississippi, and her Shepherd internship. 

My experience through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty Internship allowed me to further my understanding of poverty, as I was able to take the knowledge, questions, and curiosities that I had formed in the classroom out into the field. I am currently a junior at Millsaps College, located in Jackson, Mississippi, where I am a Sociology/Anthropology and English double major. So far during my time at Millsaps, I have taken classes such as The Many Dimensions Poverty and Crime & Prisons that have led me to become highly interested in our criminal justice system and passionate about poverty studies.

Leah (Millsaps 2017) interned in DC at the Public Defender's Service in 2015 and "witnessed intense segregation of neighborhoods in D.C."

Leah (Millsaps 2017) interned in DC at the Public Defender’s Service in 2015 and “witnessed intense segregation of neighborhoods in D.C.”


Our first assignment in the Many Dimensions of Poverty course was to define the concept of “poverty.” What seemed like a simple and easy question – to define poverty – was actually one of the toughest assignments in the course, for I quickly realized that I did not know all the aspects that contributed to the destitution and inequality that exists all around me. I realized at that moment that the Many Dimensions of Poverty was going to be a class that left me with more questions than answers, as it would make me aware of the complicated, complex, and difficult to define social issues that exist and thrive in America. As a white, middle class female who has always lived a comfortable and sheltered life, supported by an economically stable and loving family, given a private education that offered countless opportunities for success and growth, and exposed to multiple extracurricular opportunities that motivated me to strive to succeed, I had little-to-no firsthand experience or knowledge of poverty.

Through the community engagement aspects of my courses at Millsaps, I was able to gain the firsthand experience that deepened my understanding of poverty and challenged me to ask questions about our social structure and institutions that I had never previously considered. I tutored at Henley-Young Detention Center, a juvenile detention facility, and volunteered at Good Samaritan, a non-profit social service organization. I also interned at the Hinds Country Public Defender Office, where my interest in criminal justice was deepened and I first noticed the many correlations between the statistics I learned in my poverty class and the clients I was working with in public defense. My courses at Millsaps caused to me to question and critically think about my views and my understanding of poverty and justice. I thoroughly enjoyed the community engagement aspects of my courses and my internship at the Hinds County Public Defender Office, and those experiences inspired me so much that I decided to become a Sociology major and wanted to take as many classes on poverty as possible. As soon as I found out about the Shepherd Internship, I knew it was a program I wanted to be a part of, and I was ecstatic when I found out I would be interning as an investigator at the Public Defender Service of Washington, D.C., where I could build upon the experience I had gained at the Public Defender in Jackson, Mississippi.

My Shepherd Internship brought me to Washington, D.C. where I interned as an investigator at the Public Defender Service. During the summer, not only did I become familiar with the field of law as I was assigned to an attorney and aided him on his cases, but I was also able to observe several overarching effects of poverty evident within the city. I witnessed intense segregation of neighborhoods in D.C.  I also witnessed the prevalence of mental illness among those caught within the criminal justice system. I interacted directly with clients living in poverty and was able to visit them in their neighborhoods and their homes and to hear their stories. During the summer, I learned about the personal effects of poverty and observed widespread issues connecting poverty and criminal justice.

The Shepherd Internship was a life-changing experience that allowed me to apply all that I had learned in my courses at Millsaps and through the work I had done in the Jackson community. I learned invaluable knowledge about the criminal justice system and law practices, as I worked on case files, traveled throughout the city, took statements, obtained documents, photographed crime scenes, visited jails, and dictated radio-runs. The Public Defender Service of D.C. is one of the best public defense organizations in the country, and working there allowed me to see how public defense can ideally function when given the proper resources. My experience has left me even more passionate about improving our criminal justice system and combating poverty.

Due to my courses at Millsaps and my internship this summer, I am considering doing my Honors Project, which is a program at Millsaps that offers student the opportunity to pursue original work while integrating past coursework with individual inquiry, on the culture of female gangs within the prison system. I plan on continuing to take sociology courses that challenge the way I think and the way I perceive our society. Although I am still unsure if I want to attend law school, my experience through the Shepherd Consortium has cemented my conviction that I want to work in a field that combats poverty in the United States. Besides law school, I am considering graduate school for sociology or studying public policy. Without my poverty courses at Millsaps and my internship through the Shepherd Consortium, I never would have discovered my passion for poverty studies and my interest in criminal justice.

#Alumniessay #DCPublicDefenderService